By Keith T. Reed
Special to the AFRO
The family of a Black man killed by a former Prince George’s County police officer while handcuffed from behind will receive a record settlement from the county, the family’s attorney announced September 28. Prince George’s County officials agreed to pay $20 million to the family of William Green, “the largest settlement ever between a Maryland local government and relatives of someone killed by police in their jurisdiction,” said William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr., the Baltimore lawyer representing Green’s family.
Green, a 43-year-old father of two, who worked as a dispatcher for a local bus company and was renowned for his skills as a grill master, lived in Washington before being slain while in police custody this past January. His death didn’t receive national attention even as it shared the hallmarks of more infamous police killings like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Freddie Gray. In addition to the unprecedented financial settlement, the case also put a light on misconduct and internal conflict in the Prince George’s police department, which patrols what is regarded as the most affluent majority African American county in the nation.
“This settlement is an acknowledgment of the massive harm done to Mr. Green’s family and a reminder that justice requires vigilance even when the victim’s name doesn’t become a hashtag,” Murphy said in an interview. “William Green’s family will never be made whole, so we have to work to make sure another family won’t suffer a loss like theirs.”
Murphy noted that the settlement was reached without filing a lawsuit on behalf of Green’s family, a result, he said, of his firm’s research into the background of the former officer, Michael Owen Jr. and diligent negotiations with county officials.
“Taking this to federal court didn’t make sense for either side,” Murphy said. “This guy was a mess,” he said of Owen.
Green’s killing bears similarities to other police shootings in recent memory. It began with a police interaction that should have been routine, much like the stop that ended in the death of George Floyd. It also involved a Black civilian who was not only unarmed but had already been handcuffed and detained, like Freddie Gray. Similarly, Murphy represented Gray’s relatives in a civil lawsuit that ended in a $12 million settlement with the city of Baltimore.
But Green’s case also bore significant differences in that it lacked a viral video of the incident, as in Floyd’s case and it didn’t spark mass protests like those that have roiled cities across the country in response to Taylor’s death. And most significantly, it almost immediately resulted in Owen being charged with second degree murder.
Green was killed by six shots fired from Owen’s service weapon as Green sat handcuffed in the front seat of Owen’s police cruiser. Green was unarmed and had been taken from his car, detained minutes earlier and placed in the cruiser to await drug and alcohol analysis at the scene of an accident. Green was suspected of striking several cars in the Temple Hills area while driving under the influence. Residents of the neighborhood called police, and Owen was among those who responded.
Owen originally told his supervisors that Green had tried to take his gun. But within 24 hours of the shooting, former PG County police chief Hank Stawinski ordered the former officer’s arrest, saying he believed the shooting rose to the level of a crime and couldn’t offer a reasonable explanation for the use of force.
“County Executive Alsobrooks’ decisive actions are what we need to see in egregious cases like these. She and her team did not waste any time getting this officer off the street, charging him and now compensating this family for the loss of William Green. Today, she is again sending a message that we all should applaud, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” said Murphy.
Ironically, Green’s death foreshadowed a larger upheaval for Stawinski and the entire department he led. It was later revealed that the department’s early warning system, designed to track problematic incidents or patterns of behavior which might signal an officer who needs help, failed to alert officials to problems with Owen. He had previously been involved in at least two other shootings, one of which was fatal.
Stawkinski also faced allegations of racial bias inside his department, which has been embroiled since 2018 in a federal lawsuit alleging harsher discipline and disparate treatment for minority officers. Facing pressure from groups including the ACLU of Maryland, as well as a looming no-confidence vote from officers, he resigned in June.
Murphy says he’ll continue monitoring Prince George’s and other departments despite the settlement negotiated for Green’s family. Families in other cases have received financial compensation for the deaths of their relatives, but often departments have been able to avoid large penalties that discourage future incidents. “Some of these settlements are valueless to the point of absurdity,” he said, adding that his hope was the size of the Green settlement would have the opposite effect. “When a settlement is very low, it causes a situation where the regulations are regularly ignored. We don’t want to see that here.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that the race of the former Prince George’s County officer was not “white”.